Continuing our Scotland Week series of features is a chat with Denki's MD Colin Anderson and internal development manager Gary Penn. The company first started eight years ago with plans to develop titles for the GameBoy Advance platform, but soon realised it was a tough climate, so opted for interactive TV games instead.
The first title on Sky's digital platform, Denki Blocks, received over 1 million plays in the first six months and was nominated for a BAFTA in 2002. Since then the company has released over 150 titles on iTV platforms, and is currently working on expanding its business on internal development as well.
Q: Success for the company so far has come from developing games for interactive TV - what was the background to the decision to follow that path?
Colin Anderson: A couple of things. First of all we were introduced to Sky by our then-publisher, Rage Games. Sky were having all sorts of problems finding good developers - they'd had a few that had let them down - and we did Denki Blocks for them.
We really enjoyed the process, they really enjoyed the process, and it just seemed like an obvious thing to do. We were clearly capable of doing it, and much closer to the type of developer they were looking to work with, so it was a natural match.
At the same time the company was looking for new platforms.
Gary Penn: You could cover it with a blanket term "crap tech", but it was just any bits of interesting tech out there that people weren't targeting. We had this grand vision that you could make games out of anything, on any platform.
Q: And iTV development allowed you to stay as a small team?
Gary Penn: Absolutely - certainly some of us wanted to get back to that old school mentality. You do get a feeling that too many cooks can spoil it, and you can stay closer to the concept if you have more of a band mentality than a Hollywood mentality.
Colin Anderson: And we genuinely believed that it could be our route at that point to original IP. We'd seen Denki Blocks do a million plays in six months, and generate a tonne of cash. We thought, "Here's one we're in at the start of, and nobody else seems to be paying much attention to."
So we ran with it, and I guess for about two years it really looked like this could be big. It was only after that we realised that maybe things were changing - so at that point I thought maybe the opportunities were overseas as new markets come online and chase Sky in the UK.
We looked at that for about 12-18 months, but that wasn't really happening either. What was happening was that the countries that hadn't invested in cable and satellite technology were skipping the whole generation and going for broadband and wireless distribution. Which is interesting in itself, because it shows where things are going - but until it gets there, the potential to make the most of the skills we have in this area aren't going to be as available as they have been - so we need to look for other markets.
But that's how we got into interactive TV.
Q: How would characterise the changes in the business over the past few years?
Colin Anderson: From profitable, to unprofitable, back to profitable. And then very profitable. That's probably it in a nutshell. In terms of specifics, it was just a case of having a good deal with Rage when we set up, because we were right in the middle of the dot com bubble, and there was lots of investment cash about. Then, as the GameBoy Advance market collapsed for original products it became really tough.
Gary Penn: For non-Nintendo products...
Colin Anderson: Yeah, and we quickly realised that if we didn't get out of the GameBoy Advance market we just weren't going to have a business. So that was another motivation to go heavily into interactive gaming, and we moved across.
Since then we've slowly built it. After Sky we brought in DirecTV and it's just a far more profitable area of the business to work in, in terms of cash but also skills - because you rapidly build games - the skills that you acquire in game development aren't from working on a bit of a product, it's from working on the whole product start to finish. Because it's only in the last 10 per cent that you get to see whether or not the preceding 90 per cent of the decision were right or not.
Seeing that whole thing through from start to finish is what really gives you the skills, so having a team of 20 people building 150 products in seven years - that's a lot of development skill, so when the market changes and the opportunities start to present themselves to create new IP again, it's a great skill base to be able to leverage.
Q: iTV games aren't something you hear much about in the games industry - why not?
Colin Anderson: I know some of the reasons, probably not them all. One of them is that it's actually tough to make money in the market, economically it's hard. You have to be able to deliver a game in six weeks, sometimes quicker. We can do that.
But typical game development doesn't work like that - instead you start with an idea and then build it until it's finished. If that happens to be five weeks, great - but more often than not it's a lot more.
The thing that kills most other developers as well is wastage - they spend a lot of time on things that either never get seen or never get used. But because you have a process that's been scaled to fit the time available, the wastage is minimal - sometimes there isn't any at all.
So it kind of guarantees you get something done within that time.
Q: There's a pretty big potential audience for Sky users - around 8 million in the UK - but they're not traditional gamers?
Colin Anderson: You find that the graph of people who use Sky services is almost an exact inverse or those who use PlayStation or Xbox. The hump for teenage to mid-thirties males on those is the complete opposite on Sky - we have everybody else except those people.
Q: And how has the platform changed over time? The games have become more sophisticated, but what about the Sky boxes themselves?
Colin Anderson: The boxes themselves have evolved a reasonable amount. They're still more or less the same, but with the advent of things like Sky Plus generation - generation 3 - the speed at which things run is substantially better than it was when we first started doing it. You're talking pretty much twice as fast.
But you do still have to support the older boxes, so you're not suddenly opening up all these doors - but fortunately the proportion of people using the older boxes is much smaller because they've all upgraded and have access to the more capable hardware.
Gary Penn: It's worth remembering that they're not meant for playing games - they're meant for broadcasting MPEG streams, so it's an abuse of the box in many ways. It's problematic for us in terms of the different boxes you have to support, because each one has its own little intricacies. They're built to a certain standard, but that standard is for broadcasting television, not for playing games.
Q: Are you surprised or disappointed that Sky hasn't commissioned a box that is better-equipped for playing games?
Gary Penn: They haven't needed to.
Q: You've recently taken the decision to continue the existing business, but also to branch out with internal development?
Colin Anderson: Two reasons. Firstly it was always our core reason for being in business - we wanted to make good games, and we wanted to make Denki games... games that only Denki would make.
The second thing was the economics in the market changed to the point where we could have serious conversations with people about supplying the kind of games to people that we wanted to make, at a price point that people could afford.
Gary Penn: We had a real problem when we started, because we had exactly that remit - we wanted to do these smaller games. We believed in digital distribution back then, which is when Sky came along about a year later - we thought it was the beginning of that revolution.
The problem we found when we made Denki Blocks at the beginning was that we had this game we wanted to do, that was a certain scale and type, and we wanted to build it in a certain way. But because it had to go out at a certain price point - otherwise it couldn't go out, it was as simple as that - you had to end up adding loads of extra modes, loads of extra features, and you feel like you're wasting your time when you could have focused on doing a nice, dreamy version of this smaller, bite-size thing.
Then it was disappointing that there wasn't a market for that sort of scale, so it's fantastic to see that eight or nine years later it is starting to happen, and you can actually get this stuff directly, you can cut out the middle man, people are quite happy with smaller games. It's a shame to have been a bit early on that one...
Q: So what's the plan?
Gary Penn: It's looking pretty healthy at the moment - we went for diversity in style of games. The main remit is to make games that we wanted to play. So we've been building stuff that we're quite happy to play, and it's aligning us with an audience that has similar sympathies.
We've got this diversity of game types, and we've been showing those off for the last three or four months, getting good feedback. We're in a position now where we just need to take some of them forwards.
Colin Anderson: We wanted to avoid that horrible moment that every developer will recognise where they've been sweating blood on this demo for three months or something, you take it to the publisher and they look at it and say, "Have you got anything else?"
Gary Penn: It's a nice position to be in where we've got half a dozen ideas, we've taken them to the stage where we can get a very good sense of where they're going to go.
Colin Anderson: Having that ability to go in and show a number of games - by the time you've got to the end there's something in there for the publisher. The next step is to find the right partner to work with in this space. We're very good at making games, we know we can deliver them. We're yet to convince others that we can design things that are unusual but still very entertaining - we realise there's a credibility thing that we need to cross there. That will be next.
We also recognise that we're not good at selling games - if we try to do that we're going to find it very hard. So we either have to throw games out there into the market and let them sink or swim. But I'd much rather find someone else with capital to invest, who's willing to come along with us for the ride.
That's the partner we're looking for - perhaps. Whether it's one of the new publishers that's focused on downloading games. Whether it's just an angel investor or somebody that wants to get into this space, and see what we're doing - we're exploring all those options right now.
Colin Anderson is MD and Gary Penn is internal development manager at Denki. Interview by Phil Elliott.
This article is part of Scotland Week on GamesIndustry.biz, sponsored by Dundee City Council and Realtime Worlds.